Post on 30-Mar-2016
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DESCRIPTIONImages of light falling on natural forms in Hawaii, all taken in January and February 2011 and introduced by a note about conceptual poetry and non-conceptual photography.
Copyright 2011 by Jonathan Morse
When William H. F. Talbot published the worlds first book with photo-graphic illustrations, he called it The Pencil of Nature. Such a title proclaimed that Talbot thought of himself as something other than an observer and recorder of the phenomenal. Both prouder and humbler than a draftsman who uses his pencil to mediate between what exists outside the paper and what the paper was created to hold, Talbot may have thought of himself as an idea mediating between his images and light itself. In any case, his technical note at the outset is the statement of an artist who stands silent upon a peak in Darien:
The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artists pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.
Only an originator could make such a claim. The second artist in any art form has to be an epigone say, a Milton creating the universe in the aftermath of God.
Many aftermaths since Talbots Victorian confidence in his ability to see and know Light alone, a representative strain of art finds itself dimmed in a smoggy shade. Making the claim for a literature as free from theme as conceptual art is free from the touch of the human, Craig Dworkin complains:
Conceptual writing shows up the rhetorical, ideological force of our cultural sense of creativity, which clings so tenaciously to a gold standard of ones own words rather than to ones own idea or the integrity of that ideas execution. The hundred-thousandth lyric published this decade in which a plainspoken persona realizes a small profundity about suburban bourgeois life, or the hundred-thousandth coming-of-age novel developing psychological portraits of characters amid difficult romantic relationships and family tensions, is somehow still within the bounds of the properly creative (and these numbers are not exaggerations); yet the first or second work to use previously written source texts in a novel way are still felt to be troublingly improper. (The Fate of Echo, xxxix. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, ed. Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010)
I take it that Dworkin is objecting here to the idea of trying to innovate (say, in prosody or vocabulary) within a form thats taken as given (say, theme or plot or
genre). Lets innovate all the way down, he seems to be suggesting. Lets do anything we can to call attention to the immer schon givenness of what weve been working with.
But he says the first or second work as if theres no difference; as if the first (the first anything) werent set apart, fundamentally and forever, from what has had to follow. If I were filing a complaint about that with the agency of Light, Id say that Dworkin has overlooked what Talbot perceived some 170 years ago. Praising Andy Warhol for his achievement of an art severed from connection with an artist, Dworkin must be left puzzling before the hundred-thousandth photograph of a homeless man on a street corner. Somehow, despite the wordy statement nailed up beside it on a gallery wall, that shot hasnt managed to disown its family connection with the hundred-thousandth painting of Elvis on black velvet. One image is sold in Wal-Mart and the other is sold at Sothebys, but both remain contaminated by the givenness of their social context and neither has become a self-creating, self-sustaining, inhuman idea.
Meanwhile, however, the agency of Light alone continues radiating. For photography, it is the prime. It began shining before there was a concept. I stand before it and open a shutter.